More than 600,000 people are believed to have been struck down in a surge in a winter vomiting bug this season, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has said.
Laboratory tests have revealed a 64 per cent rise in the number of people with the norovirus, with 2,313 confirmed cases on December 2, compared with 1,412 at the same point last year.
But the HPA estimates there are 288 unreported cases for each confirmed one, which means 666,144 people are likely to have contracted the illness.
The agency said it was unsure why more people were suffering with the virus but added that the norovirus season was always “unpredictable”.
Despite the increase in laboratory cases, figures show a slight fall in the number of hospital outbreaks of norovirus, from 53 in the two weeks to November 25 to 40 in the two weeks to December 2.
Dr Bob Adak, head of the gastrointestinal diseases department at the HPA, said: “The norovirus season is always completely unpredictable as it peaks and falls over several months – usually October to April.
“However, one thing we do know is that every year we will see a large amount of norovirus activity because it is highly contagious.
“The figures for the last two weeks show that there has been a reduction in the numbers of outbreaks in hospitals, although there are clearly a lot of other people becoming unwell.
“We would like to remind people to avoid visiting friends or relatives in hospital or care homes if they have symptoms consistent with a norovirus infection as it can lead to ward closures and severe disruption.”
Last week the HPA reported an outbreak of norovirus had led to the closure of 45 hospital wards across the previous fortnight.
The virus can be transmitted by contact with an infected person, by consuming contaminated food or water or by contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.